In Touch, in Tune : Papa John Creach Continues a Career That's Ranged from Armstrong to the Airplane

The days when the Jefferson Airplane vaulted its chaotic psychedelia into pot-filled, amoeba-light-showed halls might seem like ancient history now. But for Papa John Creach, who played with the Airplane and its spinoff groups for five years, music goes back a little further than that.

"I can remember the time when guys would sing through a megaphone," states the multifaceted violinist, who turns 73 on Monday. A professional musician since his teens, the Pennsylvania-born Creach has included stints playing classical, jazz, be-bop, R&B;, pop and acid rock. Given his current busy schedule--which includes shows tonight with bluesman Bernie Pearl at Cafe Lido--Creach will likely outlast several more musical styles.

Reached by phone this week at his Los Angeles home, he said: "I've just kept on going. I think I'll always keep on playing because it's therapy for me. To make me feel good, I pick up my violin and play it. It makes me enjoy life as much as I can.

"It makes me so happy, really, to see all those faces and a full house, and everybody wanting to shake your hand and tell you, 'I saw you when. . . .' Some of that can be interesting, because they'll tell me about engagements I forgot I played."

It's forgivable if Creach has forgotten about a few of his gigs, since he's had over half a century of them. As a child he was introduced to the violin by an uncle. Subsequent tutoring and conservatory studies gave him classical training, which led to symphonic work in Chicago in his early 20s. "We were playing some pretty heavy stuff," he said, "but then I started in jazz because there was no money in the symphony stuff."

Creach said the fact that he is black also once posed a problem in symphonic circles.

"They closed the door on you. You really had to try. Who'd ever heard of a black man playing symphonic violin? That's what they'd say. But I never paid them any attention. I just kept on sawing on the thing. And I got pretty good at it. The more I kept on playing, the more people forgot about it being a black man playing the violin."

Fluency in a number of styles was an economic necessity in Chicago he said, "because of all the nationalities, I had to learn to play everything. At some jobs it was strictly German music, or Polish. Now, they used to dance and knock holes in the floor."

He wasn't so immediately adept at learning jazz. "A violin (player) coming out of a symphony orchestra sounds like the corniest thing in the world when you start playing jazz. Then I started trying to play like the horn players I was running around with. I had to change my bowing technique and other things to make it sound more like a horn. I've been doing that ever since."

There weren't many jazz violinists for Creach to be influenced by, though he wasn't alone on the instrument. "I used to jam all the time with my buddy Stuff Smith, and I played with Eddie South, who they called the Black Angel of the Violin. I listened to Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli, but I was playing fiddle real good by the time I heard them." A limiting factor on the jobs available to jazz violinists was the modest volume the instrument produces, a problem Creach addressed in the early '40s.

"The violin was a hard instrument to get into a big band, until in 1943 I got a National electrified violin and amp. The pickup on the violin was like a telephone receiver pickup under the bridge. It was a great instrument for that time and era because it had a nice mellow tone, and it was loud . You sure couldn't drown it out."

Though Creach did have occasion to play with legends such as Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian, he remained on the periphery of the volatile jazz scene, opting instead for steady work with a trio dubbed the Chocolate Music Bars.

"I found work playing cocktail lounges for a hotel chain, so I didn't fit in too well to the club scene. There were like 17 hotels in the chain, and they sent me to all of them. I knew where I was going for six years. So I didn't have to go through all this other stuff of looking for a gig tonight and tomorrow."

In 1945, Creach moved to California and formed his own trio. He continued working steady gigs, including a five-year stint on the Catalina steamer in an outfit called the Shipmates. But he also branched into R&B;, working with Roy Milton, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and others. He appeared with Nat King Cole in the Fritz Lang film "Blue Gardenia." (More recently Creach and his music were featured in the CBS TV movie "A Gathering of Old Men.")

In 1970, some members of the Airplane saw him playing at the Parisian Room in Los Angeles. They were sufficiently impressed to soon ask him up to San Francisco to play a show with them. That show, it turned out, was a wake at the Winterland for Janis Joplin, and Creach found himself sharing the stage with Jerry Garcia, Santana and others. He gave his two-weeks' notice to the Parisian Room and spent the next five years playing for thousands of fans a night (there were 100,000 for one Central Park show) with the Airplane, Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna.

Aside from the volume of the Airplane--which required Creach to get a larger amp and some earplugs--Creach said he had no problem adjusting to their music. "I just listened to their albums and then knew exactly what style to play in. It was the same with a woman singer I just recorded with in Japan. You just go with the music."

The Airplane's lifestyle, including a predilection for altered consciousness, also didn't faze Creach. "They were called acid freaks and all that. But I knew drugs way back before them, and they weren't doing it heavy like kids are now. But back in the early jazz days, all the heavy dudes was doing it, Louis (Armstrong) and all that bunch. They used to smoke it back when they called it hemp. I never did like it. I couldn't get nothing out of it. I'd just go get me a bottle of bourbon or something, and get more kicks out of that."

When he departed the fold in 1975, "I slowed down considerably because they'd had a rock 'n' roll agent, and he just kept you busy. It was all, 'Drive 250 miles, then play a gig.' "

Managed since then by Gretchen Creach, his wife of 27 years, he still has no shortage of work. He just returned from a recording project in Japan, is being sought to repeat a European tour he made last year, and has been approached to tour Asia and Australia later this year. In June he embarks on a West Coast tour with the Dinosaurs, a group composed of San Francisco-scene veterans.

"Because of the legendary-ness of me or something, everybody wants to see if I'm still walking around, I guess," Creach said with a chuckle.

Papa John Creach, the Bernie Pearl Blues Band and Harmonica Fats play tonight at 9 at Cafe Lido, 501 30th St., Newport Beach, (714) 675-2968.

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